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Nabokov’s Otchaianie, La Méprise, Despair: Tracking a Would-Be International Novel



Translated into French as La Méprise and into English, with revisions, as Despair, Vladimir Nabokov’s seventh Russian novel Otchaianie (1932–1936) reveals the novelist’s evolution as an international author. This narrative, whose version in English circulates as a “Vintage International,” started out as the work of an author with no solid national attachments. In a sinister twist on Nabokov’s cultural/linguistic fluidity, Otchaianie focuses on a Russo-German narrator, the unreliable Hermann, and his memoir of a murder plot gone awry. Hermann imagines that his book can be an international success, with distinctive attractions for French and American readers, among others. A key scene for each audience features creative parodies expressing Nabokov’s position on Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s importance for fiction, then at its height. Otchaianie strongly favors Tolstoy, but a dismissive review of La Méprise from the internationalist wing of French literary opinion, in the person of Sartre, was blind to the polemical force of these parodies, to the point of missing Nabokov’s rejection of Dostoevsky. 

That rejection sharpens in Despair even as Nabokov’s admiration for Tolstoy reaches new heights. In general, his career shows that, given his total estrangement from Soviet Russian literature, he turned to French and Anglophone centers of literary authority. Nabokov did not respond to the broader internationality implied by Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s differing visions of world literature. 

The essay evaluates Nabokov’s addition of “national” to a key passage in the French and English versions of Otchaianie, addresses variations in the significance of his intertextual practices, and calls for a revaluation of this novel as an expression of free-speech authorship in peril.


March 2020: John Burt Foster, Jr., is a University Professor in the English Department at George Mason University in Virginia, where he teaches European and world fiction. He holds a doctorate from Yale in comparative literature and has published widely in that field. His books include studies on Nietzsche and modern fiction (Heirs to Dionysus), on Nabokov’s art of memory in relation to European modernism, and on the “transnational” Tolstoy. With his colleague Wayne Froman he edited Thresholds of Western Culture and Dramas of Culture for the International Association for Philosophy and Literature. From 2010 to 2016 he was an executive officer for the International Comparative Literature Association.

Last updated on 07/03/2020